Many young women dream of the moment when their boyfriends get down on one knee and propose with a flawless diamond engagement ring. They have come to believe that diamonds are a symbol of everlasting love and commitment; as such, the diamond engagement ring has become an absolute necessity for men who wish to marry.

However, this fairy tale masks a much harsher reality. The diamond engagement ring, far from being a freely-chosen representation of affection, is actually the result of one of the greatest marketing campaigns in the history of business, a scheme developed by the powerful De Beers organization to increase demand for a cheap, abundant commodity.

The scarcity of diamonds has been a long-held misconception by the general public; in fact, diamonds are an easily-accessible gemstone. This fact was quickly realized by the prospectors who sought to profit from the discovery of diamonds in South Africa during the late 19th century. Faced with the prospect of bankruptcy, the various investors decided that their only hope was the creation of a worldwide cartel, which would come to be known as De Beers.

The early leaders of De Beers were faced with the daunting task of creating an artificial scarcity in the diamond market. Ultimately, this could be done in only one of two ways: limiting the supply of diamonds or increasing their demand. Of course, if De Beers could do both simultaneously, the price of diamonds would skyrocket, so the diamond cartel decided to take a two-pronged approach.

One strategy involved cornering the market by making De Beers the only supplier of diamonds in the world. As it turned out, this was the easy part. Through various anti-competitive practices, De Beers came to control 90 percent of the entire diamond market. Ruling with an iron fist, De Beers could control the supply of diamonds into the market in order to manipulate its price and keep competitors in a subservient position.

The bigger challenge was getting consumers to actually buy these diamonds. Although diamond rings had been in existence for literally billions of years, they were not popular among general consumers. Somehow, De Beers would need to convince middle-class consumers that they needed diamonds, but in order to do this, they were going to need some help.

It is at this point that N.W. Ayer, one of America's top advertising agencies at the time, entered the picture. De Beers recruited N.W. Ayer to develop a marketing campaign to sell diamonds with the idea that they were synonymous with love. This led to the famous “A Diamond Is Forever” advertising campaign, which the magazine Advertising Age rated the most effective advertisement of the last 100 years.

Thanks to a comprehensive marketing strategy, De Beers was able to convince the public of the scarcity of diamonds and of the importance of diamond engagement rings to a loving relationship. As such, De Beers had pulled off one of the greatest coups in recent memory, which led to billions of dollars in profits for the monopoly.

As if this sordid history wasn't bad enough, it was later discovered by Global Witness, a non-government organization that studies the abuses of natural resources, that many diamonds were being used by ruthless rebel groups to finance civil wars throughout much of Africa. These blood diamonds, which euphemistically came to be known as conflict diamonds, were often mined by young children and sold to companies like De Beers in order to purchase weapons for bloody insurgencies against central governments.

Although many people saw this as a humanitarian catastrophe, De Beers viewed it as a marketing problem. If diamonds became associated with slave labor and civil wars, the view that diamond rings were an object of pure, unadulterated love would be shattered. Just like that, half a century of continuous marketing efforts would be undone.

With civil wars raging in places like Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the issue of blood diamonds could not be swept under the rug, which led to the creation of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. This was a system designed to be a cooperative effort between the diamond industry and national governments to eliminate blood diamonds from the market. The appeal of the agreement to De Beers was obvious: by stigmatizing blood diamonds, it could further reduce the supply of diamonds on the market.

However, the Kimberley Process turned out to be very difficult to implement. Because blood diamonds are indistinguishable from legitimate diamonds, it is almost impossible to guarantee certification unless the diamonds are followed through every step of the distribution process. This created a serious problem for De Beers because they were unable to control the supply of blood diamonds on the market; as such, this put the entire monopoly in jeopardy.

Although the Kimberley Process claims to supervise over 99 percent of the diamond market, the scheme is so riddled with problems that Global Witness, the organization that originally brought the problem to light, decided it was no longer worthy of its support and quit. To this day, blood diamonds continue to be a serious problem throughout much of Africa.

Despite decades of effort by the De Beers company to convince people of the inherent value of diamonds, their scarcity is artificially driven by clever marketing campaigns and collusive economic behavior. Even worse, the entire industry is inextricably linked with the terrible effects of blood diamonds. It is a disturbing history that should be considered by anyone thinking about buying a diamond ring.

Author's Bio: 

Alex Levin is a writer for DuMouchelle Exchange, jewelry appraisers and diamond buyers for over 80 years.